Among a certain generation of gamers, Nintendo’s core titles represent the antithesis of cool. All those bright colors, simple graphics and the emphasis the company puts on cartoonish characters like Mario, Donkey Kong and Link can also make it easy to write off the iconic company as a bit player, no pun intended, content to line its pockets with the fruits of yesterday’s success.
Turns out, the story of Nintendo — which celebrated its 125th birthday this week — has a lot more texture to it than the conventional wisdom would suggest. For starters, the Kyoto, Japan-based consumer electronics giant is playing a different game than its competitors like Sony and Microsoft, both of them console-makers serving up titles that can feature hyper-realistic graphics and epic scope far beyond what Nintendo’s hardware can match. Or, better yet, what Nintendo has decided its hardware would match.
To get a handle on just how a different a game Nintendo is engaged in, consider: The company, which started out peddling playing cards, didn’t get into the video game business until the 1970s. That means Nintendo has only been doing the thing for which it’s most well known for less than a third of its history.
Rather than squeeze every drop of green out of a business model built around playing cards once Nintendo decided it couldn’t last, the company outran oblivion the way innovative companies tend to do. Nintendo made a point of trying almost anything, including side projects way outside its core competencies, projects that most gamers today probably don’t remember or aren’t even aware of. It dabbled in the taxi and food businesses, for example, as well as eventually getting around to these bright, shiny toys called video games. And when it seemed like video games were going to be a “thing,” Nintendo had the good sense to take action.
The popular English translation of Nintendo’s name is “leave luck to heaven.” There’s some dispute about whether that’s the right interpretation of the name or not, but it certainly fits — indeed, it’s what Nintendo has committed to doing for more than a century.
Blake Harris, the author of Console Wars, says that before Nintendo entered, resurrected and dominated the video game market with games like Donkey Kong, Super Mario Brothers, Metroid and The Legend of Zelda, the company was mostly a playing card company that went on to peddle whimsical toys like the Love Tester. “Although Nintendo’s forays into the mundane and bizarre might seem like relics from a very different company, I think those diverse offerings actually speak to something about modern-day Nintendo that’s often forgotten: Nintendo is unafraid to innovate,” says Harris, whose book about the console wars of the 1990s between Nintendo and Sega is being turned into a movie by Seth Rogen and director-screenwriter Evan Goldberg.
The film will focus on the period when Sega, a gaming upstart, made a run at the much larger and seemingly impregnable Nintendo. One of the marketing strategies Sega used to considerable effect was that Nintendo is a maker of toys, that its products are for young boys and that gamers who wanted something new, exciting and with a bit of an edge to it (like the friendly-yet-menacing Sonic the Hedgehog) could find it at Sega.
It was a knock that would be hard to shake among some gamers, this idea that Nintendo is boring and stays firmly in its own sandbox, making certain kinds of games for certain kinds of gamers. However, Harris continues, “for all the talk that Nintendo is a staid, stubborn company who has failed to evolve with the times, they truly are one of the most dynamic and innovative companies around today.”
This is a company that, when it decided playing cards weren’t the future, renamed itself from Nintendo Playing Card Co. to Nintendo Co. and shifted its focus toward an era of experimentation. Starting in the early 1960s, according to various sources, Nintendo basically transformed itself into a corporate dilettante. The company set up ventures including a taxi business, a TV network and even got involved in the love hotel business.
In the late 1970s, as the company was starting its push into video games, it made what would prove to be a significant hire: Shigeru Miyamoto, a game creator often hailed as the Steven Spielberg of video games.
He’s created some of the most successful franchises of all time for Nintendo, which still mint money for the company, including games built around iconic characters like Mario and Zelda. The artist that he is, he’s frequently also drawn inspiration from his daily life. A 2010 New Yorker profile of Miyamoto explained his memory of a neighbor’s bulldog that would lunge at him when he passed by, tugging at its chain. In the Mario series, that memory shows up in the form of Chain Chomps, an angry black ball attached to a chain that snap its sharp teeth if game characters get too close.
All things considered, the video game industry today is much different than when Nintendo first stepped onto the landscape, and as a result the company finds itself at another “leave luck to heaven” moment. Magic and a child-like sense of wonder and adventure are one thing, but when hordes of gamers want first-person shooters, graphics that burst from the screen, big, robust multiplayer capabilities — well, as with most things in life, money talks and the other stuff walks.
According to Fortune magazine, through June 30 of this year, Nintendo’s Wii U console, which his shelves in 2012, has sold a little less than 7 million units and nearly 37M games, both of which are less than what Nintendo thought it would sell in one fiscal year, let along two. Gaming analyst Michael Pachter, speaking at the Cloud Gaming USA conference in San Francisco at the beginning of September, blasted Nintendo as being “a decade behind the curve” compared to its competition and that, eventually, “Nintendo hardware goes away — there is no place for Nintendo hardware.”
Still, any company that can celebrate a 125th birthday can’t ever be counted out. In a presentation to investors earlier this year, Nintendo president Satoru Iwata said:
“We will continue to value the motto which we inherited from the company’s former president, Mr. Yamauchi: the true value of entertainment lies in individuality … we don’t believe that following trends will lead to a positive outcome for Nintendo as an entertainment company. Instead, we should continue to make our best efforts to seek a blue ocean with no rivals and create a new market with innovative offerings as a medium- to long-term goal.”
Andy Meek, based in Memphis, has written for publications including Fast Company, Buzzfeed and TIME. He tweets at @tdnandy.